At 27 years old, Forest Park resident Janiene Garcia has comforted AIDS victims in New Orleans, spent a year with neglected children in Mexico and served the homeless in her own community.

But this graduate student isn’t slowing down. On April 7, Garcia received a Master’s degree in social work from Dominican University, along with one of the university’s highest honors: the Outstanding Service Leadership Award.

“I really saw her ability to organize and make a difference in the community,” said Myrna McNitt, the professor who nominated Garcia for the award. “She has a very even personality that allows her to move into a situation of stress or diversity and manage those situations, like one would expect from a professional.”

McNitt knows first-hand. In May 2010, she selected Garcia to travel with her and other experts to assess the needs of children’s homes in Ecuador. Garcia was the only student on the trip.

Zully Alvarado was also there. She grew up in an Ecuadorian orphanage and later founded the Chicago-based nonprofit Causes for Change. Alvarado said that Garcia displayed a tremendous amount of “caring, patience and understanding” for someone her age.

“She fell right in with us and did not hold back. She was not shy about contributing in conversations, whether with the team or with different communities,” Alvarado recalled. “We met with top government officials as well as the poorest of the poor. Life teaches you so much, but with her just starting out as a student, to have that flexibility is great.”

Although Garcia might be globetrotting or grant writing as part of her blossoming career, the inspiration for her social work stems from humble origins. She grew up in Villa Grove, Ill., and she recalled her family “was always participating at [her] school or church.”

“They were passing along that message, the importance of helping others, with what was practical to them in their lifestyle,” said Garcia.

When she started her undergraduate education at Eastern Illinois University, the scope of her service work grew beyond her hometown and crossed national boundaries. Through the campus volunteer center, she led spring break service trips and ultimately got her first taste of travel abroad by going to Haiti as part of a club excursion.

“Probably because I grew up in a town that’s so small and mono-cultural, once I started realizing what was out there, I just wanted to soak all of that culture up,” she said.

Garcia said her 2005 trip to Haiti had more impact on her than any other service trip she has made since. She recalled women offering her their children to take bake to the US so they could have the various opportunities America affords.

Two religious sisters set up the summer camp Garcia worked in to provide a place for impoverished kids to get two square meals a day when they were out of school. ÊÊ

“It’s not as overwhelming when you’re there in Haiti. It’s whenever you come back, and you go to the grocery store – there’s way more food than is going to get purchased. You know it’s going to get dumped, and you get overwhelmed by that,” Garcia said.

At Dominican University, Garcia continues to work as a student leader. She recently organized a group of graduate students who traveled to Ft. Benning, Ga. to protest the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Formerly known as the School of the Americas, it is a facility run by the U.S. government that is used to train Latin American soldiers.

“During [the protest], the people who had been affected by genocides led by graduates of the school came and spoke about what happened in their community,” said Garcia. “It was definitely politically charged.”

Politics, however, are not something Garcia shies away from. She thinks most social workers “don’t want to be involved in” politics, but added that, in order to be effective, people in that line of work need to be activists.

“You would definitely want to push for policies to be improved, and you definitely need to be advocating for people’s rights, for what’s best for clients,” Garcia said.

Garcia’s immediate post-graduation plans center on her growing family: she is expecting her first child this summer. While she hopes to remain involved in international social work, she intends to settle down and work domestically on international policy change, or on training others to provide services to communities abroad.

Whatever Garcia’s plans, professor McNitt remains confident that she will continue to embody the values in Dominican University’s motto: Caritas et Veritas (Love and Truth).

“A person nominated for [the Outstanding Service Leadership Award] must fulfill the mission of the university, and I think she does an outstanding job,” McNitt said. “She’ll make a wonderful contribution to her profession.”